With the veto by Russia and China of a U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at Syria effectively heralding an end to diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis, the spiraling violence seemed to leave little doubt that both sides are gearing up for a fight to the finish.
“There’s no way the armed opposition would go for a negotiated settlement now,” said Jeffrey White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They believe they are winning, and I think they probably are.”
Wednesday’s bombing in a key security building in an upscale Damascus neighborhood killed Assad’s defense minister, Dawoud Rajha; the head of his crisis management cell, Hassan Turkmani; and his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat. The attack shattered any illusions that the inner circle of power in the country was impregnable and left the regime looking shakier than at any point in the 16-month-old uprising.
Rumors that Assad also had been killed were quelled when the president made his first appearance since the attack in a brief segment broadcast on state TV on Thursday showing the swearing in of the new defense minister, Fahd Jassim al-Freij. The pictures depicted the two men standing in a room with an ornate chandelier and tables but did not mention a location, further fueling speculation that Assad may have left Damascus.
It was unclear whether the seizure of border crossings into Turkey and Iraq would provide a significant boost to the rebels’ efforts to oust the Assad regime. When rebels briefly seized a Syrian post on the Turkish border a few weeks back, Turkey simply closed the crossing.
But it offered a powerfully symbolic reminder of the government’s vulnerability in the outlying provinces of the country, which have long been in open revolt and where armed rebels hold sway over large swaths of territory.
“These operations are important because they boost the morale of our people and are political messages,” Col. Malik Kurdi, the deputy commander of the Free Syrian Army, said in a telephone interview from the military refugee camp in southern Turkey where the nominal rebel leadership is based.
Free Syrian Army fighters overran the main Abu Kamal border crossing between Syria and Iraq about 8 p.m. Thursday, tearing down pictures of Assad, burning the Syrian flag and erecting the revolutionary one, according to Farhan Fteikhan, the mayor of Qaim district in the adjoining Anbar province in Iraq.